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Northern Ireland's female politicians must lead drive for equality at Stormont

Politics in Northern Ireland has primarily been dominated by men. However, over the years women have emerged to prove they can take key positions with utmost competence. But more still needs to be done to combat the gender gap that still exists

By Suzanne Breen

Published 14/01/2016

First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster
First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster
Alliance Party deputy leader Naomi Long

It was meant to be an occasion to celebrate a massive step towards sexual equality in politics. Arlene Foster had just become First Minister and, at last, Northern Ireland had something positive and progressive to showcase to the world.

Here was a woman securing the top political job in the State, and in the party that outsiders would have least expected. The DUP 'dinosaurs', as their critics call them, were for once leading the way.

And then Edwin Poots put his size 10s in and told the new First Minister that her most important role was as a wife, mother and daughter. If Arlene had shattered the glass ceiling, it appeared that Edwin was on the ground gathering the pieces to try to put them back together again.

For me, the Lagan Valley MLA's remarks are a classic case of unconscious sexism. I don't for one second believe he intended to put Arlene "back in her box", or suggest she'd be better making tea and tray-bakes.

It would be political suicide to belittle the boss in her first hour in office but, most importantly, Edwin wouldn't want to. He thinks the world of the new First Minister and wholeheartedly believes she is the right person for the job.

There may well be future fall-outs, but I haven't yet heard anyone on the DUP's fundamentalist wing question Arlene's capabilities or resent her impressive rise through the ranks. She has earned their total respect.

Edwin has pointed out that when Health Minister he spoke of how important being a husband and father was to him. But that is very different to publicly pontificating on a female colleague's domestic duties on the biggest day of her political career.

No DUP MLA would have dreamed of making similar comments at the inauguration of Peter Robinson or Ian Paisley who, more than any other unionist politician, was a family man.

It wouldn't have entered their heads because, when both men took their pledge of office, they were seen at that moment as powerful political figures, not defined by marital or familial status.

But Poots' misguided remarks definitely don't mean that Northern Ireland politics isn't the place for women, as one media commentator rashly declared. Arlene waved aside Edwin's comments with minimum fuss, and that was the right response.

When quizzed about his wardrobe in a previous media interview, David Ford said: "Buying clothes, what's that? That's what you have a wife and daughter for." Yet nobody would suggest that as Alliance leader he has done anything other than promote women through the ranks.

The odd silly comment from a male politician isn't the reason for the lack of women in politics. The problem goes far deeper than that. Only a fifth of our MLAs at Stormont are female, the lowest representation in any UK legislature. A meagre 11% of our MPs are women, compared to 29% for the House of Commons overall.

Yet I'm sick of hearing the same voices trot out the same jargon about how the adversarial nature of politics here puts women off. It isn't written in our DNA that we are invariably meek and mild. Women can, and should, be able to do confrontation just as much as conciliation.

Remember our youngest ever female MP, Bernadette Devlin, who walked across the House of Commons floor and slapped Home Secretary Reginald Maudling across the face for what he said about Bloody Sunday?

Agree or disagree with Bernadette's politics, she was at least authentic, which is what the public craves in politicians, regardless of gender. Despite being media darlings, the Women's Coalition flopped because it lacked credibility at grassroots, sounding at times like little more than the Northern Ireland Office's female wing.

It's no coincidence that recently the most successful female politician after Arlene Foster is one who has best embraced the rough and tumble of politics here. Naomi Long's campaign to retain her Westminster seat was as combative as they come.

It took four men to withdraw from the election to ensure her defeat. She had fire in her heart and steel in her soul, and it reaped rewards on the ground. Although she lost, she increased her vote by almost a third - a remarkable 4,000 votes - and is on course to be elected to Stormont.

Ruth Patterson's challenge to Emma Pengelly in South Belfast in May's elections will see two totally different type of female politicians go head-to-head. Patterson comes to the contest 16 years a councillor, outspoken and unafraid to cross the DUP leadership - a politician who has made her name on the streets.

Pengelly is a polished performer who has cut her teeth as a policy-maker and adviser in the corridors of power. Sometimes parties push their favoured female politician, but the public has other ideas. Sinn Fein championed Caitriona Ruane, while it was Michelle Gildernew as a minister who proved more popular with punters.

If we are to tackle the lack of women in politics then childcare must top the agenda. No matter how much we strive for family-friendly hours, politics by its nature isn't a nine-to-five business. Women politicians, even with partners who share domestic responsibilities, are competing against men with wives who usually do everything.

The ambition gap between the sexes must also be addressed. Women themselves need to be hungrier, pushier and more self-confident. I taught politics at Queen's University in the 1990s. While the women's written work was substantially better than men's, female students would too often sit silently through tutorial discussions. By comparison, you couldn't shut male students up.

On BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster it was this week depressingly revealed that some women in politics here are reluctant to be interviewed. Given the importance of publicity in politics, that is fatal.

A female elected representative without the confidence to go on the airwaves will find it very hard to be promoted in her party. Whereas the likes of the SDLP's Claire Hanna, who relishes going head-to-head with opponents in debate, will see her star rise within her party and at the polls.

Given the current snail's pace of progress, a gender equal Assembly is at least half-a-century away. That has led to calls for quotas, which have already been introduced in the Republic.

Political parties not fielding 30% female candidates in the Dail elections will lose half their annual State funding. Yet I fear quotas are a quick fix that give the impression of equality, rather than tackling the issues from the bottom up.

I don't believe there's much to be gained from academics and ivory tower analysts producing further papers and policy documents on the gender gap in politics here. Rather, we need the likes of Arlene, Naomi, Michelle, and Claire joining forces to drive a powerful campaign for sexual equality right into the heart of our community.

Belfast Telegraph

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